Composting is definitely one of the most important practices to learn about once you have purchased a polytunnel from First Tunnels. No matter how large or small your growing areas may be, composting can help you to grow your own food and make your garden a productive area that can continue to provide for you and your family for years to come. For this reason, compost is a valuable commodity in the formation of a sustainable growing area. Read on to discover why we compost, how to compost, and the details that will help you create the ultimate garden compost to feed your soil and plants.
Why Composting is Such a Good Idea?
Composting is the process by which organic waste materials from your garden and home are recycled to form a fertile mixture which can be used to return nutrients to your growing areas. There are many reasons why making compost is a good idea.
- Composting Reduces Food Waste & Garden Waste
(When it ends up in landfill, organic waste can add to greenhouse gas emissions. By composting our waste at home, we ensure it does good, rather than harming our planet.)
- Composting Ourselves Allows Us To Reject Peat Based Composts
(Peat is a valuable carbon sink, helping to trap carbon and keep it out of our atmosphere. Home composts are a good alternative to bought peat composts.)
- Composting Ourselves Can Help Reduce Plastic Waste
(Making our own compost means we won’t have to buy it in plastic packaging.)
- Compost Helps Protect the Soil Ecosystem
(We all rely on our soil to feed us. But soil that is mismanaged and not fed properly can degrade over time. Compost keeps the precious soil ecosystem functioning well.)
- Compost Helps Enhance the Soil For Increased Yield Over Time
(Compost can not only protect and maintain soil quality, it can also enhance and increase it. You can improve soil quality and increase your yield of edible produce by ensuring a good nutrient cycling system is in place.)
Making compost can also be extremely satisfying. It is wonderful to see the crumbly, fertile mix that can be created from a heap of garden trimmings, vegetable scraps and other waste materials. There is immense satisfaction in knowing that you have gained a valuable commodity from materials that other people make the mistake of throwing away.
Of course, making your own compost will also save you money on maintaining your garden, and make it easier than ever to reduce your household bills by growing your own food.
How To Make Compost
There are various different methods used for composting. Below are details of the most common types of composting system in the UK:
Composting in place
One of the easiest ways to return nutrients to the garden system is to simply layer organic matter on top of the soil surface and allow it to compost in place. Sometimes called ‘sheet mulching’, and also found in the idea of a ‘lasagna bed’, composting in place is one of the best ways to create new growing areas. By layering different tiers of organic matter on the ground, we can create a rich, friable planting medium. The way this works is similar to the way things operate on a forest floor, where leaves and debris fall to the soil surface and are broken down in place, feeding the trees above and completing the cycle. Bacteria, fungi and other soil biota will help to break down material into compost, and incorporate that compost into the surrounding soil over time.
Cold composting, like composting in place, is simple and straightforward. The only difference between this and the above is that rather than spreading out our compostable material over the soil surface, we contain it in a heap or a bin somewhere in our gardens. This obviously allows us to use the finished compost wherever we like – on garden beds, when potting up, or in our containers.
It is best to have at least two heaps or bins for your composting, as this will allow you to take finished compost from one while you are still adding to the other. One easy way to create a place for your cold compost is to make your own DIY compost bin with wooden pallets, though with a little imagination, there are lots of reclaimed or recycled materials that could be used for this purpose.
As the name suggests, hot composting involves decomposition at higher temperatures. Hot composting is undertaken in special hot composting containers, or with the use of straw/ straw bales. The benefit of hot composting is that it can speed up the process considerably. It also destroys weed seeds, and can increase the number of kitchen scraps that you can deal with safely. This process is a little more complex in the initial stage, and may take some initial investment to set up, but could be a better choice for serious home-growers in the long run.
Vermiculture involves getting a little help in our composting from a special sort of worm. Keeping worms can allow you to compost kitchen waste and cardboard from your home quickly and efficiently. The compost you create, rich in worm castings, is a particularly fertile and valuable soil amendment/ growing medium.
Worms and wormeries are available to buy from a number of online retailers. You can also make your own wormery quickly and relatively easily with a few basic DIY skills. The worms you want are not regular earthworms but rather ‘red wrigglers’ or ‘tiger worms’, specialist compost helpers. Keep worms happy and you can gain a great compost at the end of the day. (Breeding worms can also allow you to supplement feed for chickens, fish or other creatures that you may keep in your garden.)
How To Compost To Create A Good Quality Product
Nitrogen and Carbon in a Compost Heap
Creating a good compost involves a basic understanding of the different sorts of material in a compost heap. The materials are usually grouped into two categories – carbon rich ‘brown’ materials and nitrogen-rich ‘green’ materials. Both types are needed in order to create a good-quality compost. Brown materials include cardboard, straw, twiggy material, wood chips and bark. Green materials include green leafy matter, grass clippings, and fruit and vegetable scraps.
In order to get a good mix in your compost, you should add ‘brown’ and ‘green’ materials in thin layers. Adding in thin layers allows for the right conditions for aerobic decomposition and helps to ensure that your compost does not become too wet or too dry.
The Importance of Oxygen in a Compost Heap
When we create compost, we are aiming for aerobic decomposition. Aerobic decomposition takes place with oxygen, anaerobic decomposition takes place without it. Oxygen is used by microbes in order to process waste efficiently and effectively. Mixing or turning your compost heap once or twice a month can significantly speed up the decomposition process and help to make sure that the aeration of your heap is sufficient for microbes to do their best work.
The Importance of Moisture in a Compost Heap
When making compost, it is also important to make sure that it does not become too wet, or too dry. When there is not sufficient moisture, microbes will not be able to do their job. Problems will also arise if your compost becomes too soggy. You may have to water your compost in the summer months, and cover it in the winter if you get a lot of precipitation where you live, in order to get the best results.
The NPK Balance in Compost
In addition to considering all the above, creating really good compost is also about making sure that your heap has adequate levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – the three main nutrients required by plant life. An average home made compost will have a nitrogen value of 0.5 %, 0.27% phosphorus and 0.81% potassium. Adding a good range of items to your compost heap will help make sure its microorganisms can do their jobs. By doing so you can help keep a good balance of these three nutrients in your polytunnel. This will also supply the trace minerals and micro-nutrients needed for good plant health.
Using Compost in Your Polytunnel Garden
Many traditional gardeners may tell you to dig your compost into your growing areas before you plant out in the spring. But in a permaculture garden, it is usually considered to be better to avoid disrupting the soil as much as possible and to operate a ‘no dig’ system. This will allow the soil ecosystem and its beneficial creatures to function as they should. Studies suggest that no dig systems can deliver superior yields than traditional dig systems. Rather than digging in, simply spread compost on top of the soil. Its nutrients will be delivered by your little soil helpers to where they need to go.
Check out our other articles to find out more about what you can and cannot compost at home, more advice on using the different composting methods, and how to use the compost you create. If you have any composting tips to share, please do so in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.